by L.K. Samuels.
In 2015, libertarian author and broadcaster Jeff Riggenbach threw down the gauntlet and urged libertarians to retake their historical position as members of the “Left.” He argued that no longer should classical liberals hide in the shadows of a broken-down political spectrum that has been rigged. After all, it was the classical liberals and the bourgeoisie who instigated the French Revolution in 1789 and sat on the left side of the aisle in opposition to the authoritarian right. Libertarians are the rightful heirs of what I call “free Left,” and many are now demanding it back from the collectivist usurpers—the “statist Left.”
According to anarcho-communist Murray Bookchin in a 1979 interview, “The American left today . . . is going towards authoritarianism, toward totalitarianism. It’s becoming the real right in the United States. We don’t have an appreciable American left any more in the United States.” Backtracking a little, Bookchin conceded that the scattering remnants of leftists were “people who resist authority . . . who defend the rights of the individual,” which also included “libertarians who believe in free enterprise.” Bookchin revealed that he felt closer ideologically to these freethinkers than to “totalitarian liberals and Marxist-Leninists of today.”
Calling socialism the “authoritarian version of collectivism,” Bookchin readily admitted that self-identifying leftists who fraternize with authoritarian diehards are actually right-wing extremists only masquerading as leftists. To him, the real legacy of the left belongs to anti-authority dissenters who uphold the virtues of individual liberty, mutual cooperation and voluntary association.
The best way to differentiate between the two left-wing antagonists is to designate the volitional contingent the “free Left,” while referring to the authoritarian horde as the statist or Fascist Left. The free Left, like the Free French during World War II, comprises anti-authoritarians who felt that their long-established realm has been occupied by foreign invaders. A logical progression would be to simply remain faithful to the original left-right classification and lump the entire menagerie of authoritarians (Nazis, Fascists and Communists) into the reactionary ranks of the statist Right.
Since the left-wing classification came from the liberty-minded classical liberals in 1789, it is only fitting to transfer this label back to the Lockean and Jeffersonian liberals who stormed the Bastille. But it is difficult to reclaim the left-wing designation from authoritarians, socialists and Marxists, who, like greedy charlatans, refuse to give up their stolen political designation.
But why did the left-wing moniker fail to stick to the proponents of individual liberty in the first place? This is the divergent point where distortion and omission of accurate history comes into play. The fact that the bourgeoisie Left and middle class free-marketeers instigated the French Revolution is not widely known. Part of the reason is that socialists and Marxists schemed to alter and conceal history, and cut out the left-wing middle class narrative. When collectivists and Marxists finally leaped onto the political stage long after the French Revolution, they co-opted the Left label from the bourgeoisie Left and condemned anyone who opposed them as reactionary or right-wing. But more astonishingly, the statist Left not only stole the left-wing designation from the bourgeoisie Left, but also absconded with their revolutionary ancestry. English historian William Doyle acknowledged this historical theft, writing that after the French Revolution, the socialists “appropriate the left-wing label and . . . lay exclusive claim to the revolutionary heritage.” The collectivists were also successful in eventually expropriating the term “liberalism” while completely changing its original liberty-based context.
To bring more clarity to these political distinctions, the authoritarian and paternalistic elements of the statist Left are almost indistinguishable from the current day “statist Right.” The statist Right carries the same authoritarian baggage, but with a religious emphasis, curtailing personal liberties in the name of god. The statist Left takes a Machiavellian approach to government, ruthless, unprincipled and eager to empower government to coerce the public. They have become the new monarchists. One blaring example is the communist, hereditary, racist, and fascist monarchy of North Korea, a nation which is still considered a Stalinist stronghold.
Historically, the free-market Left of the large Girondins faction of the Jacobin Club instigated the French Revolution. But within a few years the reactionary, violent, proto-socialist Montagnards faction took command. Although they sat on the left, they should be regarded as the authoritarian right. The Montagnards not only undermined the revolution with monarchy-like supremacy, but they guillotined 22 classical liberals from the French National Convention on October 31, 1793. Thomas Paine, an elected representative to the French National Convention, was seated on the left side of the aisle with the other liberals within the Girondins faction. He was denounced as a counter-revolutionary, arrested, jailed and scheduled to be guillotined, but escaped. One of his crimes was that he did not believe in revenge killings, opposing the beheading of the king. This attitude irked the bloodthirsty statists.
The Montagnards attempted to establish a populist egalitarian government with a ruthless hierarchy to require citizens to obey the state. Very little change occurred except that authoritarian power was vested in citizens who could now administer a reign of government-sponsored terror. According to French historian François Furet, as the Reign of Terror tore society apart and executed opponents, the revolution rushed towards a “democratic ideology to rule in a despotic manner,” without regard to individual rights.
The French Revolution was more than a clash across ideological battle lines; it was personal. The rising merchant class and peasants detested the privileges granted to the noble class, and their dominance in public life. Many commoners regarded the Catholic Church as an accessory to the state’s oppressive practices. The largest landowner in France, the Church and its hierarchy were seen as strangling commoners and the business community with increased controls and obligatory tithes. Theocratic authority became one of the main obstacles to freethought, transparency, capital finance and open marketplaces that would eventually come to uplift the poor.
But there was more to the struggle. French commoners took up arms not only about being disempowered and dehumanized by the French political elite, but also over high and regressive taxation, which rose 50 percent between 1705 and 1781. The farming peasants and merchant class mainly bore the brunt of the unfairly-collected taxes where the “top decile of the population were taxed about 60 to 65 percent to all assessments.” As for the nobility and the clergy, they were mostly exempt from taxation.
Not surprisingly, the French Revolution also encompassed an anti-tax component that mirrored the American Revolution. This anti-tax fever was on full display just before the Bastille was attacked. Before the angry French mob and the Bourgeois Militia of Paris stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the free-market revolutionaries first launched an assault against the hated Paris “tollgates,” where excise taxes were collected by the state. Later, in a number of areas in France, the people displayed a general animosity towards imposed levies and “denounced all taxes.”
So who were the free Left and bourgeoisie Left during the early stages of the French Revolution? The left-wing designation was in accordance with the early seating arrangements in the French legislative chamber, composed mostly of the rising laissez-fairecapitalists, master artisans, shopkeepers, land-owning farmers, financiers, Jewish tradesmen,doctors, merchants, professionals—generally the classical liberal “bourgeoisie”, which literally means “town dweller” in old French. And obviously, the other side, the right side, was populated by authoritarians, the aristocratic elite, monarchists, and Church officials.
Originally, the Girondins had the largest faction within the Jacobin Club, spearheading the French Revolution under the banner of freed markets, individualism and smaller, limited government in an effort to downsize the Monarchy’s authority. After toppling much of the King’s authority, the Girondins rushed into a liberty-fueled abolitionist spree, dissolving the last vestiges of aristocratic privilege, the system of church tithes, feudal dues owed to local landlords, and personal servitude. The radical liberals also released the peasants from the seigneurial(lord) dues, which helped tenant farmers buy their own private farmland. Next, they turned their abolitionist gunsights on the feudal-based guild system that blocked entry to markets, as well as “tax farming,” where private individuals were licensed to collect taxes for the state while taking a large share for themselves.
The Girondins’ most lasting legacy was the ratification of “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” (August 1789), which was directly influenced by Thomas Jefferson. As a U.S. diplomat at the time, Jefferson had worked with General Lafayette to write a French bill of rights, which Lafayette introduced to the National Constituent Assembly. Referring to this declaration, François Furet wrote: “For this structure they substituted the modern, autonomous individual, free to do whatever was not prohibited by law . . . The Revolution thus distinguished itself quite early by its radical individualism.”
Moreover, the Girondin bloc also ratified laws supporting equality of taxation, the freedom of worship, equality of legal punishment, and abolishing serfdom outright, including a 1791 law to emancipate Jews from their unequal treatment. The Girondin-led assembly also granted free people of color full French citizenship and enacted universal voting rights for all adult males, regardless of race, religion, income, property or any other qualification. They even included a pro-gun rights provision in the French Declaration of Rights, which declared that “every citizen has the right to keep arms at home and to use them, either for the common defense or for his own defense, against any unlawful attack which may endanger the life, limb, or freedom of one or more citizens.” Despite the effort, this draft did not make it into the final document.
After the classical liberals had ousted state monopolies, high unequal taxes, specially-endowed privileges, entrance barriers and stifling regulations, the economy flourished. However, with the establishment of British blockages of French harbors, runaway inflation, and invasions by foreign armies, the economy soon soured, sputtering into recession.
Unfortunately, the Montagnards maneuvered to overthrow the Girondins, took to the streets, alongside sans-culottes elements, and acted like mindless thugs pushing for more political power. Like Lenin’s Red Terror and Stalin’s purges of the old Bolshevik revolutionaries, the Montagnards orchestrated mobs who assailed anyone considered a counter-revolutionary, even their own brothers in arms, upholding the adage: “Revolutions eat their own children.” It took just 36 minutes to chop off 22 Girondins legislator’s heads in 1793. This was the flashpoint where the statist Left rose up and sought to destroy the original bourgeois free Left. At this juncture, freedom-of-the-individual liberalism was assaulted by Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, which later influenced both Communism and National Socialism.
This second revolution within the French Revolution devolved into a bloody-terror dictatorship, an all-powerful state amidst a cult of personality, such as the so-called “Incorruptible” Maximilien Robespierre, in a counter-revolution that was illiberal and antithetical to the Lumièresof the Enlightenment.
The Montagnards wanted more than just liberty; they wanted a revolution that would correct social and economic wrongs. They sought immediate change, and demanded that every citizen had a right to “public relief,” and that the state now had to guarantee social and economic rights including free education to all. For these social revolutionaries, limiting government to the protection of individual rights would hamper the state’s ability to solve social and economic inequalities. Although the abstract concept of equality was bourgeois in nature, the Montagnards began to view government as the equalizing force to implement political policies that could assist the unfortunate, even if state intervention infringed on the equal rights of others. They began to see government as an enforcer of their version of justice and equality, reassuming the paternalistic role of an autocratic overseer with a democratic veneer. They were engaging in the welfare and social engineering policies that later became so appealing to the German National Socialists and the Soviet Russians.
The French Revolution started off in 1789 as a bourgeois-led movement to advance political, legal and opportunity equality for all commoners. Along with emphasizing reason as the main source of authority and legitimacy, the early libertarian free Left rebels championed liberal capitalism, civil liberties and secularism. Laissez-faire capitalists and the merchant class were indeed the original left-wing revolutionaries. Emulating the rebellious Americans across the pond, they held liberal values that demanded a republic with Lockean consent of the governed.
But more importantly, not only were the leaders of the free Left guillotined, but ever since, the statist Left has distorted history in an effort to control the future by altering the past. It is time to right the wrongs and bestow upon the modern-day classical liberals their legitimate claim, to restore their political-genealogical history.
Much of the material is excerpted from L.K. Samuels’ new book, Killing History: The False Left-Right Political Spectrum and the Battle Between the ‘Free Left’ and the ‘Statist Left,’ which has over 1,500 footnotes.